Thankfully, We’re All Works in Progress!

I caught up with Jarrett Lerner who is one of our many wonderful featured authors at the 14th Annual Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 20th.  He is a prolific children’s author, having published five books in the past eight months: The Hunger Heroes: Snack Cabinet Sabotage (October 2022),  Nat the Cat Takes a Nap (January 2023), Goes for Gold: Geeger the Robot (April 2023),  Nat the Cat Takes a Bath (May 2023), and A Work in Progress (May 2023).  His other middle grade series, EngiNerds and his unpublished eBook Knights of the Kids’ Table round out his book family.

 A Work in Progress is about a “boy who struggles with body image in this poignant middle grade journey to self-acceptance told through prose, verse, and illustration.”  I am so thankful that Jarrett wrote this book – there are too many kids who need to read it because they are struggling with their negative self-image and self-talk. Both the kids who say mean words to others, and the ones who are the recipient of those mean words – they need to read this book.  And discuss it. Together. He shared a powerful message in a very accessible way.

Jarrett will be presenting A Work in Progress in a panel discussion with Janae Marks (On Air with Zoe Washington), and John David Anderson (The Greatest Kid in the World)  in the Jim Henson Pavilion, beginning at 1:15 pm (yours truly will be moderating the conversation).

He will also present his graphic novel chapter book, The Hunger Heroes: Snack Cabinet Sabotage with Jonathan Roth (Rover & Speck: This Planet Rocks!) in the Graphic Novels and Workshops Pavilion beginning at 11:15 am.

I hope you enjoy my interview with the kind-hearted (and witty) Jarrett Lerner.

Who encouraged or inspired you to become an author/illustrator?

I was first inspired by becoming a reader, and finding books I loved and connected with. That’s still one of my greatest inspirations. And when I finally realized that I actually COULD attempt to become an author-illustrator — like, as a JOB — I had boatloads of encouragement from my family and friends. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done and continue to do without them.

What is your writing space like? Your art studio?  

I’ve got a space at home that I use. It’s full of natural look, great books, and my kids’ artwork. And while I love creating there, I also make sure not to get TOO attached to it or any of the conditions I can reliably create there. To have a job doing what I do, I need to be able to be productive and occasionally even creative on demand, and often that means when I’m AWAY from my studio space. That being said, I love it there.

What do you love most about the cover art and illustrations in your current books? 

The cover art for a book is the illustration that you usually spend the most time and energy and thought on — and that you usually discuss most extensively with your publishing team. I always tell kids that the advice “don’t judge a book by its cover” is great advice for everything BUT books. Because we put so, so, SO much time and energy into making those images just right, so you’ll get a very particular idea about what the book’s going to offer you. I’m pleased with all my covers, and think they do a good job letting readers know what’s in store for them if they actually pick up the book and give it a read.

Can you speak to your creative process?  Do you write the words first, or sketch out the panels or pages?

Regarding my process — no matter how the book looks in the end, it always begins in a notebook, and I both write and draw. My first drafts are a mess, a mix of words and pictures, usually only half-formed. It’s an “idea dump,” and once I’ve gotten everything out of my head related to the story, the characters, and the world they inhabit, I go back through the notebook and try to clean up the mess, tidy it into something that looks like a story — or even just scenes or moments. From there, I’ll try to put together a draft, and at that point I usually get a sense of how the story will best be told — mostly text and occasional illustrations, as a graphic novel, or as some kind of hybrid. For me, that’s how I make the decision: I choose the form that will tell the story in the best way for my intended readers.

Do you have a discussion guide for A Work in Progress, and if so, could you share with me?

The AWIP Educator Guide just became available, and was created by Carrie Friday, a library media specialist in Florida.

Your two books are very different – for each of them, who is the reader you are writing for?  Please describe them, and what you hope that the reader will learn.

They are different, but they have similarities for me, too. I try to make books that kids both want and need. My youngest readers, who are just learning how to read, are going to want and need something different than my older readers, who are in middle school or high school. But focusing on my readers, giving them what they want and also what I believe they need (even if they don’t realize it!), is what guides me and has yet to steer me wrong.

In the sketch of yourself on the author’s page and the dust jacket you look so serious or troubled – maybe even a little angry, but in every picture of you I see on social media, you have a big, happy smile.  Why did you sketch yourself that way? What message are you giving us?

A Work in Progress is largely autobiographical, and toward the end, Will talks about how he still has bad days, days when he isn’t doing all that great. I think that’s an important point to make (I explore it in my third Geeger the Robot book as well). There is a lot of intentionality behind my author portrait for the book, including that expression. I wanted my readers to know that while I’m usually happy and full of positive energy, I still have bad days, like everyone — days when, like Will, I just want to hide in a hoodie and stay in bed.

Do you think there will be a second book about Will?

I’m not sure! I’d like to revisit Will, a couple years down the road. Lately, I’ve actually been thinking about writing a story from one of the minor A Work in Progress character’s perspectives. We’ll see!

What is something that you really want your readers to know about you?

I have lots of hobbies and passions that have nothing to do with books or making them, and I think that’s hugely important if you want a career making books. I love skateboarding, I love cooking and going out to eat, and more recently, I’ve fallen in love with Formula 1 racing.

Which book review or award has been most meaningful to you?

The reading association of my home state, Massachusetts, once gave me an award for being a “champion of literacy” in our community and the country at large, and that was deeply meaningful and hugely rewarding to receive.

What are you most looking forward to at our book festival?

Meeting all the young readers!

Additional Resources

Donuts, Pizza, and Fortune Cookies (oh, yum!)

I love being a school librarian for many reasons, but the most important one is that I get the opportunity to introduce my readers to interesting and talented authors and illustrators – and Mika Song is one of them! Donut Feed the Squirrels and Pizza My Heart are a popular choices in my elementary school library, and rarely stay on my bookshelf for long as they are in the hands of another enthusiastic reader. Norma and Belly’s next adventure, One Smart Cookie (August 2023) is going to be equally as loved!

Mika Song is a featured presenter at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 20, 2023, and will be sharing Pizza My Heart (A Graphic Novel).  She and her friend, Isabel Roxas (The Adventures of Team Pom: The Last Pom (Team Pom Book 2))  will be presenting their books and leading a workshop together entitled, “Sticky Situations”, at 1:15 pm in the Graphic Novels and Workshops Pavilion.

I hope you enjoy my visit with Mika Song!

Who encouraged or inspired you to become an author/illustrator?

My father is a photographer and my mother is a magazine editor and they both encouraged me to draw and write. My grandmother was a writer and jewelry designer. As a kid I loved visiting her tiny bedroom where she worked with her many art supplies, typewriter and crafts books. I still remember her showing me how to put a watercolor wash around a figure to make a drawing look more cohesive. I realize I still use that trick all the time. I learned so many things that I am not even conscious of from her.

What is your writing space like?

My work space is a big desk in the corner of my bedroom next to the window with a good view of the street. I can hear the train and people walking by. I get many of my ideas this way. The plot of my early-reader graphic novel, DONUT FEED THE SQUIRRELS, came to me when I was working at home and I smelled something delicious outside my window. On the street below me was a donut truck, CARPE DONUTS. I imagined a hungry squirrel jumping into the chimney of the truck from a tree branch above.

What do you love most about the cover art and illustrations in your current book?   Describe your art style and your art process.

The thing I love most about my Norma and Belly covers is that each title mentions a specific snack. Patrick Crotty, the designer at RHG, came up with a really fun way to design the cover so it looks like a pizza box but also still fits in with the template of the previous books in the series. I like that the squirrels are eating while running with the pizza because it is such a New York thing to eat your pizza while walking.

I think my art style for these books is approachable to a young reader. The characters are composed of a few expressive handmade lines and shapes that are not always perfect or regular but fun and lively.

Who is your favorite character in your book and why?

My favorite character is Belly the squirrel because she doesn’t let things get her down. She keeps her eyes on the donut, not the hole. She’s a breeze to draw and always cute. Most of the time I am actually like Norma, always thinking about some plan or worrying about the future.

How (or in what ways) do you hope librarians will promote your book?  

Librarians have been helpful in getting my books to young readers. I remember during lockdown in 2020 watching a librarian do a read aloud of DONUT FEED THE SQUIRRELS which had come out very recently. Even though they are graphic novels for independent readers, I hope they get shared as read alouds too. One student told me it only takes 13 minutes to read all the chapters. 

I draw new Norma and Belly comic strips once a week on, a free comic newsletter by KidLit creators, that is another way to share the world with readers. I think it’s a good resource for librarians running comics clubs and makerspaces. I hope it shows the diversity of the comics format.

Who is the reader you are writing for?  Please describe them.

My reader is anyone who is having a long day or work at school and just wants to sit in the trees of Fort Greene park with Norma, Belly, Gramps and Little Bee and imagine a world where the only thing that matters is a donut guarded by a very uptight food truck seller.

What is something that you really want your readers to know about you?

One thing readers should know about me is that my next book in the Norma and Belly series is coming out on August 8, 2023. It is called ONE SMART COOKIE. It takes place partly in a fortune cookie factory and we learn something important about Little Bee. It was fun to make this book because I learned about the history of the fortune cookie and its significance in Asian American history. I also learned while working on the book that my grandmother’s first job as a young adult was typing up fortunes for fortune cookies.

Another thing readers should know about me is I enjoy getting letters from them.  Write to me at

Mika Song, PO Box 4594, Sunnyside, NY 11104.

Which book review or award has been most meaningful to you?

One of the first honors Donut Feed the Squirrels received was from the Texas Library Association’s Children’s Round Table. They put it on the 2021 Little Maverick Graphic Novel Reading List. I didn’t know about the list at the time because graphic novels for kids were not as popular. It made me happy to see that librarians love comics for kids and that my book was one of their favorites.

What are you most looking forward to at our book festival?

The thing about the Gaithersburg Book Festival that I am most looking forward to is drawing with my friend Isabel Roxas (THE ADVENTURES OF TEAM POM) and the kids. I just never know what will happen when we draw together. And making up comics with kids on the spot always makes me see new things in my work.

What message do you have for your readers?

My message to readers is life is beautiful – stay curious about the world around you so you don’t miss anything fun.

Credit: Jae H. Song

Want to learn more about Mika?

Elena Reads and Reviews: With the Stroke of Her Brush, Mika Song Brings Diversity to Books

Get to Know … Mika Song!

Mika Song Draws author website

Mika Song Printables – fun for kids (and adults!)

Sunday Haha


Kitty Sweet Tooth Makes Her Way to GBF

My students LOVE graphic novels.  Strong readers, reluctant readers, those with attention issues – nearly all my students read graphic novels. They also love dogs and cats, so you can imagine that Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series, John Gallagher’s Max Meow series,  John Green’s InvestiGATOR series (yes, I know gators aren’t dogs or cats) books don’t stay on my library shelves for long – if at all.  I am excited to add Kitty Sweet Tooth to my ever-growing graphic novel collection!

Abby Denson will be part of an “animals and their antics” graphic novel panel, along with John Gallagher (Max Meow), John Patrick Green (InvestiGATORS), Dave Roman (Astronaut Academy series) at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 21 at our new location, Gaithersburg’s Bohrer Park, 506 S. Frederick Avenue, Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Abby’s Graphic Novel Author Presentation:  12:15-1:05 pm in the Willa Cather Pavilion. It will be immediately followed by a book signing.

I hope you enjoy my interview with the delightful Abby Denson!

What is your creative space/studio like?

Abby’s creative space – photo provided by the author.

It’s a large room with a couch and a lot of natural light that has two computer workstations and a drawing space. I have multicolor fairy lights hanging around the room and wall art that includes a black cat hanging rug and various Japanese furoshiki cloth hangings with patterns I like. I also have book shelves with lots of comics and graphic novels on them as well as my small collection of dolls and action figures. This includes a Kitty Sweet Tooth plush doll that my editor Robyn Chapman commissioned as a (very thoughtful) gift when the book launched! It was made by the talented Claire Sanders.  

Kitty Sweet Tooth plush doll created by Clare Sanders.

How (or in what ways) do you hope librarians will promote your book?

Mainly, I just want my books to be available to readers, but I love it when my books are part of a nice display, or if they get featured as a recommended read. That’s great! I also hope for my books to be included on ALA recommended reading lists and considered for awards. I love to do library events, and luckily have been able to do several virtual library talks over the past year.

What do you hope your readers will learn from reading your book?

Kitty Sweet Tooth is about friends creating something great for their community together, and it can teach kids about overcoming obstacles and unexpected mishaps through cooperation. It centers on a character who has an enthusiastic love for movies, and she is inspired to share that with her town at the movie theater. I hope it will encourage readers to share their enthusiasm and appreciation for the arts and encourage their own feelings of creativity.

Uniquely Japan is a non-fiction book covering different Japanese cultural topics. I hope that readers will learn a lot about Japan from it, or at least enjoy  looking at my comics, photos, and drawings!

Who is the reader you are writing for? 

Anyone who wants to have a fun and enjoyable read, but is also interested in learning something new. 

What is one (or more) thing(s) that you really want your readers to know about you?

I’m hoping that my books will make people smile, and I want readers to know that if they are inspired to do so, they can also create their own books and comics. Please go for it!

What do you love most about  your cover art and illustrations in your book?   

For Kitty Sweet Tooth, the entire book was illustrated by Utomaru, who is a brilliant artist! I’m so glad I get to work with her. Frankly, I love everything about her cover art! Though if I had to pick out details, I do especially love the cake that Kitty is holding and also the way the film reel wraps around to the back of the book. Also, there is a totally different (equally gorgeous) cover design under the dust jacket, so please look inside and check it out. Molly Johanson did the amazing design work!

For Uniquely Japan, the cover includes my own illustrations, and I am really happy with the compact hard cover design of the book – the Tuttle team did a great job! I especially like the way the sushi and bento illustrations came out.

[Melissa:  If you would like to read more about Uniquely Japan, here’s the link to an article in Stars and Stripes.]

What has surprised you most about the characters in your book?

 In Kitty Sweet Tooth, it can be surprising how resilient and tough Kitty is (you’ll see more of this in her next book Kitty Sweet Tooth Makes a Movie). Even when different mishaps occur, she and her friends can figure things out together. 

Publishes October 18, 2022.

Which book review or award has been most meaningful to you?

Receiving an International Manga Award for my book Dolltopia was really special. Having my work recognized by a board of established manga creators was very meaningful to me. 

I also recently got a very insightful review for Uniquely Japan from UK Anime Network. I felt that they really understood what I was aiming for with the book. Read the UK Anime Network review here.

What are you most looking forward to at our book festival?

Meeting the readers and my fellow authors!

Please join Abby Denson at Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 21st!

Abby Denson is the author of “Uniquely Japan,” the “Kitty Sweet Tooth” series (illustrated by Utomaru), “Cool Tokyo Guide,” “Cool Japan Guide,” “Dolltopia” and “Tough Love: High School Confidential.” She has scripted comics for Amazing Spider-Man Family, Powerpuff Girls Comics, Simpsons Comics, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Josie and the Pussycats, Disney Adventures, and many others. Her work has garnered the International Manga Award, Moonbeam Children’s Book Award, and IPPY Award. She has taught and lectured at various venues including the Eugene Lang College at The New School and Sophia University in Tokyo.